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Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn Mirza

  (Redirected from Zafarnama (Yazdi biography))

Several versions of the Zafarnama exist, however out of the versions written in the fifteenth century, only three illustrated copies survive, the Zafarnama of Ibrahim Sultan, the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn, and the Turk ve Islam Eserleri Mflzesi Zafarnama.[1] This article examines more closely the Zafarnama written for Sultan Husayn, also known as the Garrett Zafarnama. The variety of versions of the Zafarnama can be attributed to the wide variety of patrons who commissioned the production of this manuscript. Each patron had different personal tastes and goals for their version of the Zafarnama, which influenced the choices of illustrations and design executed by the artists of their choosing (see Function of the Paintings).


The Zafarnama, which translates to "Book of Victories," is a panegyric book written by Sharif al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi approximately two decades after the death of its main subject, Timur, the Turco-Mongol Persianate conqueror. It was commissioned by Ibrahim Sultan, Timur's grandson between 1424–28, and remains one of the best-known sources of Timur's life.[2] The text was written using the notes taken by royal scribes and secretaries of Timur, suggesting that the history of the book was based on a careful and desired selection of facts.

Most of the poetry and texts in the beginning of Islamic Iran were panegyric, written at the demand of political and religious leaders as part of their attempt to establish their own legacy. In his lifetime, Timur wished that his deeds would be commemorated through clear and simple language.[1] However, the Zafarnama has a decent amount of hyperbolic language and panegyric sentiment, revealing that the current literary tastes of the next generation of writers prevailed over Timur's wishes.[1] The Zafarnama was often copied and illustrated in Persia before making its way to being translated into Chagatay Turkish under the Uzbeks, and into Ottoman Turkish during the sixteenth century. More recently, the Zafarnama was translated into French in 1722 by François Pétis de la Croix and into English the following year.

The Zafarnama of Yazdi is one of several fifteenth-century texts that highlights Timur's leadership and military accomplishments. Sharif al-Din 'Ali Yazdi relied on these previous texts about Timur's career as a conqueror to influence his text of the Zafarnama. One of his main influences was a biography written by Nizam al-Din Shami in 1404.[2]  An example of proof of this statement is the use of Ghiyas al-Din ‘Ali’s story detailing Timur’s experience in India (the Ruz-Name-ye Ghazavat-e Hindustan) that is present in both versions of the Zafarnama that are decades apart. In 1410, one of Timur's sons, Shah Rukh, demanded an updated version of his father's history. By then, the original Zafarnama's authoer, Nizam al-Din Shami, had passed so another scribe, Taj al-Salmani, finished the manuscript and put Timur's last few years onto paper.[1] These textual precedents were important to the creation of the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn, as they dictated the content of the text in the manuscript.

The Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn was produced in the fifteenth century (1467-8), possibly in the town of Herat.[3] The colophon states that the manuscript was the work of "the most humble Shir Ali," who was a popular scribe in his day.[1] It is believed that the six illustrations were painted by the renowned artist, Kemal a-Din Bihzad.


Sharif al-Din Ali’ Yazdi, also known by his pen name Sharaf, was a 15th century scholar who authored several works in the arts and sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, enigma, literature such as poetry, and history, the Zafarnama being his most famous(539).[4] He was born in the affluent city of Yazd, Iran in the 1370’s. He devoted much of his life to scholarship, furthering his education in Syria and Egypt until Timur’s death in 1405 (1,19).[5] Sharif al-Din rebelled against ruler Shahrukh Timur 1446-1447 when the government was vulnerable, but was later commissioned to different cities for his acumen. The later years of his life were spent in Taft, where he eventually died in 1454 (Monfared 539).[4]

Yazdi was directed to write a biography of Timur in 1421 known as the Zafarnama, completing it four years later in 1425. Timur’s grandson Sultan Abu al-Fath Ibrahim Mirza was patron during the completion of his father’s biography (Monfared 539).[4]

Introduction to the IllustrationsEdit

The Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn includes six double page illustrations that correspond with the text, equating to twelve miniatures (Sims, 180-1).[1] The pairs consist of four battle scenes, one court audience, and one scene depicting the construction of a mosque. (Natif, 213).[3] Although there are debates about whether the miniatures were painted during or after the text was completed, it is clear that space was left for the miniatures to be added in at these specific points, with the text continuing around the frame set out for the illustration (Sims, 180-1).[1] The double page format of the illustrations is a unique artistic decision, as in this period most double illustration pages were only used for frontispieces (Natif, 225).[3] Two theories are used to explain this divergent inclusion. Some believe that the design for the Yazdi’s Zafarnama was inspired by the Zafarnama of Ibrahim Sultan (1436 Zafarnama) which had five double page compositions, although the Zafarnama of Ibrahim Sultan illustrates a narrative sequence with the addition of smaller miniatures. (Natif, 25).[3] Thomas Lentz suggests that wall paintings which decorated Timurid elite palaces may have also been an influence on this double page format, inspiring the artist to copy this style onto the pages of a manuscript.[6]Besides the format, the miniatures themselves are also significant compared to earlier manuscript illustrations. The illustrations are brightly colored and display original compositions which reveal a depth of emotion and “psychological reality which relates figures to one another” (Sims, 281).[1] Thus, the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn stands out as one of the great illustrated texts of the Timurid period.

Breakdown of the PaintingsEdit

The illustrations in the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn fluctuate between images of Timur himself and Umar Shaykh, his second son. The first illustration is labeled "Timur Holds Audience in Balkh on the Occasion of His Assumption of Succession to the Line of the Chaghatay Khans on 12 Ramadan 771/9 April 1370" and depicts Timur, in the center of the page, under a tent, being crowned in the springtime, an almost exact translation of the text into picture (Sims, 237).[1] In contrast to other illustrated coronation scenes, there are no images of dancers, musicians, or feasting, with Sims arguing this was done to ensure that the image conveyed “the precise textual meaning of the solemn occasion it illustrates (Sims, 245).[1] This first image also introduces us to the main character of Timur, who can be identified in later images by his central location in the composition and his green robe. The isolation of the hero in an empty space is a recurring feature in the manuscript (Natif, 214).[3]

The second folio is entitled “Timur's army commanded by Umar Shaykh attacks Urgench/Khiva in the spring of 781/1379”, which shows Timur’s second son attacking an enemy citadel. Umar Shaykh was the great grandfather of Sultan-Husayn, the patron, and by including him in the illustrations as a military hero, he connects himself more closely with the prowess of Timur (Sims, 283-4).[1]  This episode is again a very literal translation of the text that relates to it. The composition is animated and seeks to show both horses and men in a variety of positions as they actively fight to take the citadel (Natif, 215).[3] Experts have also said that this folio combines both fifteenth-century conventions and original features in depicting the composition and details, yet it still creates an original painting (Natif, 215).[3]

“Umar Shaykh outmaneuvers Ankatura in a night attack on the Syr Darya in 790/1388”, the next folio, also shows a battle scene, depicting two armies converging over a river at night. In contrast to the previous two images, this painting is much more ambiguous, both in composition and meaning (Sims, 260).[1] This illustration does not match up with the story in the text, which states that it is the army of Ankatura that surprises the Timurids by crossing the river, while the illustration shows the opposite (Natif, 217).[3] In addition, the composition is also confusing as it is difficult to identify the enemy and main characters in this illustration, which contrasts greatly from the clear and organized compositions of the previous images. Sims concludes that “this painting must be judged on its considerable formal values separately, quite apart from its value as the illustration of a specific historical event” (Sims, 260).[1]

The next image, “Timur's army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 798/1396”, is the first depiction of this specific event in Persian painting (Natif, 217).[3] The painting shows the Timurids being lowered in baskets down the cliff face so that they can attack the Georgians that hide in caves carved into the rock. The composition of this scene is more free and flowing than previous images, with a rhythm created through the organic forms of the mounted soldiers and the curves of the rock face (Natif, 218).[3] One explanation for this freeness of composition is that there were very few descriptive elements in the text, so the artist had free rein to depict the scene how he wished (Sims, 261).[1] Some believe that this scene was illustrated because of its “picturesque potential” and propagandistic message of conquering a foreign foe (Sims, 264).[1]

The next image breaks from a battle scene and instead shows “The construction of the Great Mosque (Friday Mosque) of Sarnarqand, began on 14 Rarnadan 801/May 20, 1399.” This illustration is also an almost true match to the text that relates to it. One interesting feature is that the location of the painting is placed in the middle of a poetic phrase which describes the completed mosque, although the image shows the construction of the building (Natif, 218).[3] Yet, these activities of building are taken exclusively from written descriptions in the text (Natif, 218).[3] Although it differs from the previous battle scenes as having no heroic figure, the subject of building a mosque is seen as a heroic action, which is part of the duties of a Muslim ruler, one of the themes in the text (Sims, 272).[1]

Finally, the last illustration is a battle scene of “Timur and his army storming the fortress of St. John in Izmir on 6 Jumada I 805/December 2, 1402.” Like the previous illustration of the Georgian attack, this narrative can also be seen as a propagandist inclusion, this time of a battle against a Christian force (Natif, 221).[3] The word jihad is mentioned several times in the text associated with this picture, and the illustration posits the Muslim king as someone who not only fights to spread the influence of his power, but also for religious reasons. The image again directly follows the text and includes many of the same compositional elements that were used in previous battle images (Natif, 221).[3] Sims describes this as the most “effective” image, as it consists of a clear composition that is complex and includes a unity of aesthetics, making it the best battle scene in the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn (Sims, 276).[1]

Illustrations can be found by consulting Eleanor Sim's thesis and Mika Natif's article, both found in the references below.

Function of the PaintingsEdit

The paintings in the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn are unique in that the majority of the subjects of the illustrations had not been seen in Persian painting before the creation of this version of the text (Sims, 286).[1] It is known that the "The Night Attack on Ankatura," "The Rout of the Georgians," and "The Construction of the Great Mosque of Samarqand” do not have any precedents, although they were used as inspiration for future versions of the Zafarnama (Sims, 286).[1] Thus, the illustrations in the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn were even more important as they had to clearly convey a text that was not known by many, except through one previous copy (Natif, 226-7).[3] This puts more question on why Sultan-Husayn, or the artist, decided to select these vignettes to illustrate, and what he meant by putting emphasis on these stories.

The Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn is very closely linked to the personal history of its patron. At the time of its creation, Sultan Husayn was focused on capturing the city of Herat, and ordered that a copy of the Zafarnama be made for him in order “to prefigure the signal victory he hoped would crown his long and arduous efforts” (Sims, 349).[1] The battle scenes, building of the mosque, and crowning scene, all relate to his eventual goals which would be fulfilled by the capture of Herat. Scholars Lentz and Lowry believe that Yazdi’s Zafarnama was also an important tool of patronage, that would continue to spread the ideology and legitimacy of the Timurids after their fall (Natif, 222).[7][8]However, the Zafarnama is a small manuscript that was made for singular viewing and was only made for the eyes of the Sultan and his court, making it difficult to be an important patronage product (Natif, 222).[3] Nevertheless, the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn succeeds in being a text that shows the glory of a lineage and the power and duties of a ruler.

Authorship of the PaintingsEdit

One point of contention surrounding the paintings of the Zafarnama of Sultan Husayn is about who painted the images that adorned the interior of the manuscript. It was originally attributed to the master painted Bihzad, however, depending on when the paintings were added, he would have still been a young man and not yet a renowned artist. Some believe that the paintings were created around the conquest of Herat in 873, but it is unlikely that an inexperienced artist between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three, as Bihzad would have been, would be given such an important commission (Natif, 222).[3] Others justify that "youthful exuberance" of the paintings and the "lack of anything studied or hackneyed," points to the young hand of the artist. The evidence of emotion and psychological awareness between the figures and the inclusion of a variety of figures in the images is also a hallmark of Bihzad’s style and is used to justify his attribution (Sims, 374).[1] It is also clear that Bihzad knew about Yazdi’s Zafarnama because he “reacts and relates to them [the paintings] in several of his works,” it just remains to be questioned whether he worked on them or was just familiar with the manuscript (Natif, 223).[3]

Although this query can never be resolved, the importance of the illustrations still hold fast. Sims condenses the purpose of the illustrations, saying that they were made to be a form of propaganda, improving the status and connections of Sultan-Husayn. However in our current context, the paintings can also stand alone as masterworks of art, one more piece of proof that they were painted by a master artist.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Sims, Eleanor (1973). The Garrett Manuscript of the Zafar-Name: A Study in Fifteenth-Century Timurid Patronage. New York University. p. 147.
  2. ^ a b Woods, John E. (April 1987). "The Rise of Tīmūrid Historiography". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 46 (2): 86, 99–101. JSTOR 545014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Natif, Mika (2002). "The Zafarnama [Book of Conquest] of Sultan Husayn Mirza". Insights and Interpretations: 211–228.
  4. ^ a b c Monfared, Mahdi Farhani (2008). "Sharaf al-Dīn 'Alī Yazdī: Historian and Mathematician". Iranian Studies. 41 (4): 537–547. doi:10.1080/00210860802246226. ISSN 0021-0862. JSTOR 25597488.
  5. ^ Binbas, Ilker Evrim (2009). Sharaf Al-Dīn 'Alī Yazdī (ca. 770s–858/ca. 1370s–1454): Prophecy, Politics, and Historiography in Late Medieval Islamic History. The University of Chicago. pp. 1, 19.
  6. ^ Lentz, Thomas (1993). "Dynastic Imagery in Early Timurid Wall Painting". Muqarnas. 10: 253. doi:10.2307/1523190. JSTOR 1523190.
  7. ^ Lentz, Thomas (1990). Persian Masters: Five Centuries of Painting. Bombay. p. 45.
  8. ^ Lentz, Lowry (1989). Timur and the Princely Vision. Washington D.C.

External linksEdit